by Bernice Stack McQuinn, 1980
“The Driver Will Stop At Points of Interest”
quotation from a leaflet: _ The Ring of Kerry
The coach from Slattery’s Travel Agency (your guarantee of Integrity and reliability) is by now (10 a.m.) 45 minutes late leaving, and there is every indication of it’s being considerably later, since it has not yet arrived so that it CAN leave. So much for their fine guarantees. Mr and Mrs Flinn (Eric and Eileen), a roving Canadian middle-aged couple whose various overseas wanderings are fast transforming them from ordinary tourists to experienced travellers were in plenty of time for the scheduled departure, and now stand cushioned in mist at the side of St Brendan’s Hotel, under St Brendan’s hulking mountain in Tralee.
An old Kerryman brings a Japanese girl from across the street to wait with them. Before bidding them goodbye, he explains that the coach is very often late. More so today since the Rose of Tralee Festival ended yesterday, dispersing most tourists. The girl is Arkuro Fuji, an exquisite blossom from Osaka,m studying in London. The three of them agree that the “Ring of Kerry” bus tour around the coast of the southwest peninsula is unlikely to proceed today with so few passengers and Stephen Birnbaum’s travel book, page 709, specifically warns against attempting the scenic run if (Eileen reads aloud) “THERE IS A SEA MIST OR CONTINUOUS RAIN, YOU WILL SEE LITTLE, GET A WEATHER REPORT BY TELEPHONING THE VALENTIA METEOROLOGICAL STATION, CAHIRCIVEEN 27.”
Eileen produces her blue plastic rain bonnet and Eric teases her about looking like a new-type nun. “Loo! That child is playing it safe. She drew a line down and across her face as she went past you.” As usual, Eileen pampers his humour, laughs ; and Arkuro, as if prompted, follows suit.
This is not Eric’s first visit to Ireland. In 1966, in Dublin on business by chance, on the 50th anniversary of The Troublkes, he had stood on O’Connell Street and watched sullen workmen scoop up the rubble from the destructions of Nelson’s grand column that stood far too long in front of the General Post office. Like as not. These very same workmen had had a hand in blowing it up the night before. Only one generation removed from having been born in Ireland, Eric could see his own soul; reflected in that curious Irish psyche that never lets them alone..
(NOTE FROM AUTHOR: I nearly died rushing from my B&B to see the famous
column and there it was….gone! But people we met made it up for me by taking me to the Park….The Austin Stack Park”, he was arrested and imprisoned, but died by starving himself to death.)
The coach at last pulls into the curbside, and a deliberation ensues between the driver and the man in a navy blazer, who dashed out of the hotel and up the bus step. For the driver’s part, indecision is definitely evident. “Only three of them” he protests. “Yes, but there are three more to pick up at Killarney”, argues the other man who, Arkuro says, is the tour guide.
Eileen is thinking two things at once: A: how come Akuro already knows him and B; the driver’s right. How can they make any money on this run? If she were Clattery, she’d refund the fares. The trip is an all-day tour, think of the gas.
“But we’re expected, we must go”, argue red the guide. “This is the last day. “ It’s September, the end of the tourist season. There are further arguments.
No mention is made regarding the state of the weather, nor is an proposal made to telephone Cahirciveeen 27. Eileen choose not to point out the warning on p 709.
An hour behind time, our Ring Of Kerry starts out.
The persuasive tour guide is Charles Kidney, Bagr. Sc. He is about 35, tall and slight, long sharp nose and an experienced grin. By his dark eyes and hair , you know the Black Irish. His name is curious for a man born and bred in Ireland. Surely no one would invent it.
As the coach hobbles into sight of Killarney’s lakes and vales, it is obvious they will have to switch to another vehicle. This one is acting as reliably as Slattery’s other guarantee. It is decided to spend the mid-morning break here for coffee and scones, and get acquainted with the three waiting American girls, who are killing time flirting with the old drivers of the jaunting cars lined up for business across from “The Arbutus Cafe”. Ingrid and Jill are from L.A.; Elaine, New York….all blonds, ready to go.
First, they pressure Charles into taking group snapshots of all his passengers. He brushes aside offers to be photographed with them as he presents each one with a copy of his booklet, “The Visitors Guide to Killerney.” which ordinarily he flogs to tourists for one pound. He autographs them personally….only one between them for the Flinns….”Tpo Eileen Flinn. Best wishes on the Ring of Kerry, 6Sept. 1980”. This being his last trip, he declines the pound notes. When all assemble in the coach, Denny Walsh, the driver, pronounces a blessing, “Are we all ready? Then we’ll go in the name of God.”
Off along the Valley of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, around the route old the swelling Atlantic, the bus, full of damp earthy odor, boasts far from full compliment:
1 commentator/tour guide
3 US girls
1 Japanese maiden
Everyone gets to sit by a window, either side of the bus, change from one to the other,mas Professor Kidney’s commentary dictates, even though it some area’s there is nothing visible but rain, streaking and snapping at the glass. When a road branches off the main route, the professor/guide explains that the reason some stopping places do not jibe with Burnbaum’s book is because rain -washed roads make it necessary to use detours. Eileen tells Eric she prefers it like this anyway. Pubs on the side roads offer a truer Irish atmosphere, better than that rinky-dink souvenir bar and trap where Arkuro bought a rosary made of black bogwood beads , “and is wearing it around her neck!”.
Everyone gets to chat with the professor. He shares himself around, curious about his passengers,m whom he mostly sees as escapists on holiday from their everyday world, anticipating some new discovery, or whatever happen-stance will mark their journey,….mark this day for looking back.
Only Eric is unimpressed by Prof. Kidney. “Something shady about him. I’ve a hunch he’s using this tour as a front. He’s an I.R.A.-ophile, collecting money for guns. In a sense we are all his accomplices. WE are the ‘Ring of Kerry”. Eileen turns on him firey-eyed, “Eric Flinn, your imagination is vividing again! Charles Kidney is a Dublin College professor. He is a man of sorrow. You can see this at once. Even though he smiles a lot, they are silent smiles, almost dead. When he speaks he looks into your soul. I can feel my heart founder.” She pictures him at school with his students, hypnotically challenging their emotions. Or she sees him as a romantic outlaw, leading a rally by raising his shoulders above the others, and tossing his head back in irresistible command, “Follow!” Be he’d never stoop to degradation.
For a time the son wins it’s encounter with bad weather and the passengers stretch themselves on the sandy beach at Rossbeigh Strand. The American companions, T-shirted in Carnaby Street Union Jacks, cluster around Charles, whispering, giggling and kidding him about all the pubs where they aree going to treat him and loosen him up. A more sensitive eye might perceive that the collegiate indifference that attracts them is the result of a jaded summer of their clones. He exudes a distance of culture, and personality, but more particularly, outlook. “You know” he chides the three sirens, “there is a pub in Belfast called ‘The Quiet Woman’….the sign outside shows a headless female”.
Eileen Flinn realizes she is not a true sightseer. She lacks astonishment for what would impress. She watches others. She often says “I am more interested in my fellow travellers than what I travel to see.” On this tour, Eileen finds nothing astounding in the spectacular heights, dizzying curves, valleys and mountains mingling heather and yellow furze on the hills; giant waves scudding water from their peaks, driving clouds of spray with the wind up on the cliffs where sheep blunder along stone walls. There is much uncultivated terrain. Peat is being cut all along the route.
“It’s a poor and lonely land, “ Prof. Kidney says with a bitter reverence.
Eileen, however, is not uninterested in the professor’s attentiveness towards Arkuro. At one refreshment break, after his usual words over the tavern counter with the publican, shuffling pound notes into his inside pocket (‘concession money” he winks), he sits Arkuro sown and orders an Irish coffee for her. Eric objects to Charles putting the make on her….”He’s twice her age”> Eileen thinks it is only natural that Charles spends more time sitting with Arkuro than the others; she is, after all, a travelling alone.
In pouring rain Denny, the driver, pulls into Waterville for lunch and stops at “The Huntsman’s Hotel”, which, exactly according to Birnbaum’s book, is furnished with dark oak priory tables and chairs, offering lovely seaviews. (Expensive to moderate). It is chef-owned by the brother of the “Smuggler’s Restaurant” proprietor.” No names are given.
Several men who are not diners, but known to Charles, pass by their table to an adjoining small room. One of them returns and whispers a word to Charles, who excuses himself and leaves the meal. Eileen speaks for her group when she says, “That bunch looks a chancy lot for our Charles to be with.”
Charles disappears for the entire lunch hour, which is a blow, noticeably to Arkuro. Eric does not regret the absence of competition. An International Tours bus drops a coachload of Texans in their midst and loud southern voices command attention. “Perhaps,” Eric goads the American girls, “you could share some of your grass with that lot and defuse them.” Horrified, Eileen administers a warning undercover kick, at the same time bent on sweetening the situation, “Oh please don’t mind him girls, he’s the worlds worst for teasing.” The American Girls quit the table to fraternize.
It is not incumbent upon Arkuro to provide amusement, or even pleasantry. She has no difficulty with sombre. Seeing a young local matron entering with a baby, Arkuro disregarding an reference, quotes, “Life is born, together with death” Eileen attempts to cheer her. “Aw, come on now, Arkuro, brighten up. Huh? You know what Eric did? When we came in, he signed the guest book “Seomra Feitheam’ That’s Irish for waiting room” Following Eric’s lead, Arkuro scares up a smile.
When Charles re-joins them, he announces time to go. Eileen and Arkuro are concerned; he has not eaten. He says he’ll take something to eat on the bus. Eric’s eyes are on the black attaches case Charles is holding. “Is that the Irish version of a doggy bag?” Eileen feels the pillow-soft leather and asks, since this is his last day, is this his retirement present, or is he taking it somewhere to be fixed? :This clasp isn’t right; the bag’s too full; what’s in it?”
“St Patrick’s souvenirs, madam. I’m delivering for my friends. Come, I’ll eat at the next stop. Let’s away.”
The most direct road back to Killarney takes them over the mountains through Moll’s Gap via a lookout point known as “Ladies View” The professor comments that it supposedly got it’s name as it particularly pleased Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. The British reference puzzles Eileen; why mention it at all, and why didn’t the Irish ever change the name?
Nearing the journey’s end, the professor is more relaxed. In a last-minute exchange of travel plans, the passengers discover they are all, including Charles, heading for London from Dublin on the same day, the following Tuesday. Charles says he gets hassled every time he goes to England. They can hold people and interrogate them without charge for one week. Last year over 4,000 Irish were so held. He was one. “Time itself is of no importance” he says, “It only becomes important as you measure it against something else.”
Eileen whispers to Eric, “Why does he keep going back?”
“Because”, (her husband whispers too) “he’s some times the decoy, and other times the bag man.” Eileen’s voice returns , “You’re at it again, Eric!”>
It is their last night in Dublin and in the O’Connell Street Pub a hum of talking sounds, smooth music, and glassware welcomes patrons. Two silhouettes occupy the leathery banquette in a corner across from where Eric and Eileen Flinn are having Guinness. No mistaking the profiles of Charles and Arkuro—-in serious discussion— their earnestness at odds with the general light-heartedness of the place. Charles lays his briefcase on the little round table between them and opens the flap just enough for Arekuro’s quick look into it. There is positive ease in the manner of their collusion.
Eileen nudges her husband, “what is in that bag?”
“I wish I hadn’t asked you.”
“Go ask him then.”
“You’re jealous, Eric.”
On Tuesday, the Flinn’s very nearly miss their Aer Lingue flight. All Dublin city transit buses are on a slowdown strike. They drive round and round, slowing down and aggravating the queues by not picking up anyone, not even opening the door. As a result, taxis are at a premium. The Flinns share a brib ed one with a friendly young man from New Zealand, who is going all over the world studying protein….doing survey on grass and other greenery to find out if it might some day feed mankind. He says he is appalled at the painted green signs he sees in sky-high letters defacing public buildings: SMASH THE H BLOCK– BRITS OUT! Eileen says the strangest sign she’s seen is one with the words, “Penalty for Leaving This Gate Open—Five Pounds”> She has no idea what is on the other side.
Once the Flinns are through the barrier for the outward bounds, Eileen glances around for the Ring of Kerry passengers. Up ahead is Arkuro, a khaki duffle bag over her left shoulder. She turns and raises the black briefcase– a farewell salute to someone behind: the professor—he is not coming with them. Charles Kidney is not leaving Ireland today. He is back there waving to Arkuro. She moves forward; looks back again, searching, straining; connecting, their eyes devour the distance.
At the foot of the boarding stairs, Arkuro is having trouble managing, and Eileen slips the briefcase from her grip. “I’ll take that on for you. Eric has all my stuff and his own too…he’s up to his ears in cameras.”
As encumbered steps now slow Eric’s way, familiar voices of the American girls reach him, and he is flattered to see Ingrid, Jill and Elaine hurrying toward him. “Where’s Charles? Is he here? Let us help you, Mr Flinn.” They surround him; seize the carry-on bags and the Aran sweater he’s carrying. “Sorry, girls, Charles couldn’t make it today.”
Looking down from the top of the passenger-stand as she crosses the bridge into the plane, Eileen witnessed this furore of feminine attack on her husband and stands suspended in a haphazard moment of time. As the air attendant welcomes her and receives her ticket, her squeeze on the briefcase loosens the catch and it springs open. A moment of panic and discovery. Frantically Eileen clasps the case shut, and unsteadily follow Arkuro to a seat.
Eric is close behind settling bags under seats and overhead. Eileen turns to him, her voice a whisper, “Eric you were right all along about the money.”
“In the briefcase.”
For a moment, Eric studies his wife’s solemn face. Of course she’s joking, getting back at him now. So he’ll play along, “Well the,” he says,. Fixing a broad grin on Arkuro, “we’ll just wait until her back is turned and help ourselves to a handful, and the IRA will be a little short in their next shipment, won’t they?”
Eileen shoots Arkuro a certain tenuous wary look. Boldly Arkuro flips the lock.
“Watch the clasp dear” says Eric.
Dublin to London is a short flight. Barely time for a gin-and-tonic. And a glance through in-flight literature. Eric draws Eileen’s attention out of her daze to next year’s Ring of Kerry schedule—stopping places changed– a new tour guide. “Well , Eileen, me love, it will be a long time before we ever match this trip again—six intimate passengers, a full-size bus, gentlemanly staffed, and Slattery’s guarantee of reliability.”
For once Eileen has nothing to say